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As population dwindles in Dixville Notch, so do the candidate visits

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The Dixville Notch ballot box sat in the ballot room where voting will happen at midnight on February 9.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H. — For decades, presidential candidates traveled through the White Mountains, off the interstate to the "Notch," a gorge nature carved into the jagged cliffs three hours north of where most people in the state live.

George Bush. George W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Bob Dole. John McCain. Dick Gephardt. Ralph Nader. And with them came the world's media.

They didn't come for the voting — ballots maxed out at 38 in 1988 — but simply to say they'd been to Dixville, home of the famous midnight primary vote. And indeed, that was how Ohio Governor John Kasich's campaign framed his Jan. 16 "special" town hall, proclaiming him "The first candidate to meet the First Voters!"


He might also only be the only one. He's the sole major 2016 presidential candidate to visit the dwindling resort town in transition so far.

"Living here, you got to meet everyone, and I always said I would never vote for anyone I don't meet," said Ellie Pearson, whose late husband managed the resort for more than 30 years.

"But since the hotel closed," the 73-year-old said after Kasich's town hall, "people really don't come this far north."

No place encapsulates the tradition — and the theater — of the New Hampshire primary like Dixville Notch, a speck of a place 20 miles south of the Canadian border that boasts the first first-in-the-nation primary vote. Every four years since 1960, residents — most of whom were employees of the now shuttered Balsams Resort — were thrust into the spotlight by casting their ballots at midnight.

Here, everybody votes. Yes, only a handful cast ballots — and fewer voters every year for decades. But turnout is 100 percent.

People often wonder if Dixville's midnight voting is a "publicity stunt," said Les Otten, the resort's new owner. "The answer to that is 'yes.' It's not a stunt, but it's publicity. In our minds, we are publicizing voting," he said.


It's a tradition started by Neil Tillotson, an industrialist who bought the resort out of bankruptcy, built a latex factory on the property, and built dormitories where factory workers and resort employees lived.

For decades, the Balsams was mostly a summer resort, where families golfed, fished, hiked, and kayaked in New Hampshire's majestic mountains. It stayed open through the fall, when the trees transform into an mélange of autumnal hues, and closed after Christmas, when the Notch looks like the inside of a snow globe.

The Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch, N.H., was shuttered in 2011.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Otten bought the Balsams after it shuttered in 2011 and is trying to transform the crumbling hotel into a swanky ski resort. But so far, the doors remain closed. Still, Tom Tillotson, Neil's son, said there was never a question whether midnight voting would occur, it was just a matter of where.

"If it would have been just three of us, it would have been in my living room," he said. Tillotson, the town moderator, is one of handful of people who actually live in Dixville. Other full-time residents? His wife and town Selectman Peter Johnson. The rest are hotel employees working on the renovation.

A photograph of former presidential candidate Bob Dole was displayed in the Dixville Notch ballot room.Keith Bedford

Johnson, who jokes that "you have to be good friends with everybody" in town, remembers a time candidates constantly sought him out.

"You have no idea the number of wannabes — maybe eight to 10 — who make it up here and invite you for a cup of coffee and a sweet roll," he said. But this cycle, "the wannabes are notably absent."


Many of the "wannabes" would be lesser-known candidates. For them, it would be a big deal to get the support of a Dixville voter — his or her name plastered on the poster board at midnight alongside governors and senators — because national media would cover his or her cause.

There was one news truck parked at the Balsams when Gerda Melanson, who worked in catering, first started making sure the buffet in "Ballot Room" was filled with yummy delicacies in 1986. Sixteen years later, she said, the world's media was crammed into the hotel, waiting for the results to be read. "There was even a Japanese truck" outside, she said, remembering how reporters would race through the hotel, trying to be first at the telephones.

"Those reporters would fall all over each other," she said with a chuckle. "There were not many phones."

On that Saturday morning in January, Kasich talked with the crowd of 48 — many former employees of the resort or current employees of the restoration — at a historic home tucked away in the mountains, as snow flakes blanketed the world outside. He answered questions about the economy, national security, immigration, Planned Parenthood, and federal regulations.

"My dad bought this place back in '54, and he built the ski area, refurbished it, built the factory. The whole process, we never had to seek permission from a single person to do a single thing," Tom Tillotson told Kasich. "Regulations are kind of like belly fat; they creep up on you over the years. How do you get rid of them?"


In November 2000, 101-year-old Neil Tillotson was the first voter in the United States to cast a ballot in the presidential race.AFP/Getty Images/AFP

Hundreds of miles away, around the same time as Kasich's town hall meeting, more than a thousand people stepped through metal detectors inside of a Portsmouth car dealership where reality-TV-star-turned-presidential-contender Donald Trump was scheduled to appear.

And so goes the dichotomy of the modern New Hampshire primary, where some candidates — and voters — cling to the primary of yore filled with intimate gatherings and town hall meetings, while others leapfrog over tradition, selling out venues like political rock stars.

"Trump really is a bit of a wrinkle," said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "But at he's least coexisting with more traditional methods of grass-roots politicking. Rubio, Kasich, Christie, and Jeb they are going about things in some sense the time-honored way."

In November 1960, nine eligible voters turned out to vote in Dixville’s first election year as an official township.UPI

One-on-one contact between voter and candidate has always been part of the culture of New Hampshire politics, with campaigns growing small crowds over time.

It wasn't until John McCain's 2000 victory that town hall meetings became a hallmark of the primary process. Then came the 2008 election cycle and what Scala called the "celebrity" of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, whose events were more rally than town hall because of the large crowds they attracted early in the campaign season.


And then, much like now, he said, Granite Staters engaged in another tradition: "a yearning for tradition."

"There's always this four-year kind of dread: We're losing what made us what we are."

Ohio Governor John Kasich was the sole major presidential candidate to visit the dwindling resort town in transition so far.Keith Bedford

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.